Winning the Game of Life

I have always thought myself very competitive, but I'm beginning to reconsider that evaluation.

Competition is about winning and losing in a zero-sum game. Everybody I know wants to win.

The more I think about it, I realize that God intended us all to "win" with no losers. Life is not a zero-sum game, and the Second Great Commandment is about enabling the other party in any interpersonal transaction to be as much a winner as I am. This essay explores some of my own personal odyssey in arriving at this conclusion.

One of the classic American family pastimes is playing board games. Monopoly is an all-time favorite. I got so I disliked playing it, because it seemed like my sister always won. She had all the luck. Maybe it's only my childish perception, but it seemed like she could wish for a particular roll of the dice and get it far more often than I. Being somewhat more of an analytical person, I eventually developed a strategy that won more often than it lost -- except when my sister played. After that the game became boring. I had conquered that mountain.

The turning point came in the home of a friend and his wife. We were playing Monopoly, and my winning strategy was working well. My friend became exceedingly angry at his misfortune and overturned the board. What astounded me was that he blamed his wife. "Why can't you play reasonably, like Tom here?" Somehow out of that experience, I came to recognize that people play Monopoly the way they play their life. My friend's marriage ended less than a year later.

I am by nature a very cautious person, but my Monopoly strategy involved taking calculated risks. It's only a game, so it's OK if I lose, I can just learn from the failure and not make that mistake again. On the average it worked. Now all of a sudden I was able to turn that inference around, and think about living my life the way my winning Monopoly strategy worked. I could "win" by taking more aggressive -- but calculated -- risks. The failures are more spectacular, but the wins are more satisfying. Life is fun.

I cannot point to any particular turning point in my growing appreciation for the meaning of life as compliance with the First and Second Great commandments, but certainly a part of the process came out of another board game, Risk.

I was introduced to Risk in my late 30s, when I was invited to join a weekly Saturday night Risk game played by some of the guys in my church at the time. The regulars were the male teachers in our day school, plus a couple members from a neighboring church and their pastor. Risk is a guy game. Sometimes a couple of the women teachers joined in, but they insisted on making it a gender competition. Mostly they didn't come.

That first week I played I won, then I consistently lost. Being somewhat of an analytical person, I noticed that the pastor won disproportionately often, so I looked for how he played that was different from the others, and emulated it. I also did a full mathematical analysis on the dice odds, so I could know with certainty when it was to my advantage to attack. Soon I was winning. I was even beating the pastor. Then it became boring, and I looked around for a different mountain to conquer.

To understand what happened next, you need to know something about the game. It's a guy game, with the goal to take over the whole world. The board is a map of the world, divided into country-sized areas grouped into continents. You place your army tokens on the countries you control, and you attack neighboring countries held by another player, with the outcome determined by the roll of the dice and the number of army tokens each player has in his respective country. The loser of each roll loses some of his armies, until they are all gone and the attacker takes over that country (or lacks sufficient forces to attack). When all your countries are gone, you are out of the game. You lose. It's somewhat more complex than that, but that's the basic idea.

Mark was the school principal, and a more meek and humble man I don't think I have ever met. He usually went out early in the game. After I knew how to win the game, I wondered if I could make another player win. I chose Mark. I never said a word about my plan to anybody, but come next Saturday, I went out first -- and Mark won! I can't say for sure that I made him win, but I was ecstatic. Could I do it again?

Doug always went out first. His style of play was aggressive, always on the warpath and disrupting the other players' continents, often for no personal gain. This tended to spoil the game for the rest of us, so we basically ganged up on him to get him out of the way. I didn't think there was anything I could do to propel him into a winning position, so I told him, "You could win this game if you wanted to, but you'd have to change your style of play." His response was that it's more fun this way. Doug got his fun by making things difficult for the other players. I wanted to get my fun by helping them win.

That's where I am today: I "win" by helping other people "win", but I can't do it if their idea of winning is to make other people lose. I once bought a self-help training seminar package on successful ("power") negotiation. Its theme was forging win-win deals.

This year I started to see that as God's agenda, helping people win by helping other people to win. Heaven is a bunch of winners and no losers. Hell is the place for losers -- especially those people who want to make losers out of other people. Those who live by the sword, die by the sword.

The funny thing is, I've been doing this win-win stuff for longer than I was aware of it. I can't point to any particular radical change in my thinking. Looking back on the more spectular failures over the years, I can see that most of them came from the other players in the game misreading my intentions. Most of them were playing a zero-sum game, and because I was not losing, maybe they assumed that I intended them to lose. Oh well.

As in those early Monopoly and Risk games, I win even from my losses, because I get to learn what doesn't work. Some of the things I learned from the biggest failures:

1. They really are out to get you.

2. The "Christians" are no different from the pagans.

3. You can't prevent the misunderstandings from happening. You only find out about them after the damage is irreparable.

4. You can't even depend on good processes in the system to recover from the failures; the processes are not followed.

5. You can't make a reliable model of the way people want to play their game, so as to devise a win-win strategy.

I can't say I like what I learned. However -- again like Monopoly and Risk -- this is only a game compared the eternal real thing.

For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.  Rom.8:18

Tom Pittman
2007 April 2